A blog subscriber asked if I had noticed how widely “so” is being used, especially to start a spoken sentence.
When I Googled “overuse of so,” this headline appeared on my screen:
So, let’s bid farewell to 2016’s most annoying and overused word
It was followed by a subhead:
So, we undertook this research and we discovered the following …
I’ll bet most of you have heard and have used so this way. Yes, even I, the Ruthless Editor, am guilty.
The writer who wants to hear less of so complains, “So is a short tag that serves absolutely no function except to illustrate the linguistic shortcomings of the speaker in question.”
Ouch. Take that, you so-and-so’s!
Is Silicon Valley to blame?
According to the irritated writer, Silicon Valley denizens are to blame for too many so’s:
This inappropriate and superfluous use of so is said to have been started by inarticulate Silicon Valley techies, more used to tapping keyboards than holding meaningful face-to-face conversations. Back in 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg managed to use the word so FOUR times in one answer during an interview with the New York Times.
Lake Superior State University, which looks at worn-out words annually, called for the reduction in the use of so way back in 1999.
Even National Public Radio has been singled out for overuse of so by interviewees and hosts alike.
In 2014, NPR’s head of standards and practices calculated how many times hosts and reporters on major NPR news programs had started sentences with so in a single week. The total: 237. He urged speakers to look for alternatives.
Fast Company recently attacked starting sentences with so, claiming it insults your audience, undermines your credibility, and demonstrates discomfort with the subject matter.
Some consider so ‘conversational workhorse’
Not everyone has such strong negative feelings about so. In online commentary, Geoff Nunberg reminds us that so is a conversational workhorse. It announces a new topic, it connects causes to results, it sets up a joke.
So, what’s it like being Justin Bieber?
So, do the low interest rates help farmers?
So three gastroenterologists walk into a bar.
Nunberg also points out:
When you hear a labor economist or computer scientist begin an answer with so, they’re usually telling us that things are more complicated than we thought, and maybe more complicated than we really want to know.
So: before question or before answer?
So can appear before a question or before an answer, especially during interviews, according to Galina Bolden, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, in an article in Slate.
However, according to data from both the U.S. and the U.K. compiled from the 1970s through the 2000s, using so before a question was much more common.
At the start of a question, so often marks the beginning of a new topic that one of the parties wants to discuss, according to Bolden.
While Bolden claims that so appears less frequently before answers than after, journalist Michael Lewis noticed its prevalence when exploring Silicon Valley for his 2001 book The New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story.
He writes that programmers (especially at Microsoft) started — or at least popularized — using so when responding to questions. Maybe that’s where Zuckerberg learned it.
So apparently is like many other grammatical obsessions: Not everybody cares about it, but those who do care can seem fanatical.
Consider how many meanings and uses this small two-letter word has. So is:
an adverb: She has never been so excited!
an adjective: He looked so handsome.
a conjunction: Her arm still hurt, so she went to the doctor.
a pronoun: If you want see the musical, do so while it’s still here.
an interjection: So, look who just walked in.
Other verbal tics overused to launch a response to a question are:
I mean … Look … Well, I mean … I mean, look …
And there are of course our longtime friends, the qualifiers kind of and sort of, and the still-omnipresent like and you know — verbal tics one and all.
We’re judged by the way we write and speak. Whether so or you know, whether like or sort of, verbal tics are distracting. Let’s all think about our use of these conversational crutches and aim for less clutter and more clarity in our speaking.
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